Review: ‘Chester Bailey’ by Joseph Dougherty at Contemporary American Theater Festival

One of the true gems at this July’s Contemporary American Theatre Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is the East Coast premiere of Joseph Dougherty’s battle of heart and wit, Chester Bailey.

Ephraim Birney as Chester Bailey in the East Coast premiere of 'Chester Bailey' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman Photography.
Ephraim Birney as Chester Bailey in the East Coast premiere of ‘Chester Bailey’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman Photography.

Set in a Long Island mental institution during World War II—and hence stripped of the distractions of social media—we come face to face with a deft combination of tragedy, imagination, and therapy. Dougherty has created a small world in which it’s hard to tell who is treating who, and which reality is the one worth living in.

The title character, a young man working the Navy yards during WWII, is left horribly disfigured after a coworker goes on a rampage. Chester survives, but more remarkably refuses to acknowledge the permanent disabilities he now must live with. His refusal to live in the real world is regarded as disorderly, so he’s shipped out to a Long Island ‘home’ for ‘treatment.’

The doctor eventually assigned to his case, Philip Cotton, is stiff, sober professionalism personified—but he has his own secrets, and over the course of the play Dougherty deftly merges the lives and minds of the two characters to the point where they understand each other all too perfectly.

At one point, Dr. Cotton wryly observes, “If there’s one thing reality can’t tolerate, it’s competition.” But by the end of their 90-minute encounter, you are left realizing how vitally important the imagination is in ensuring their survival—how the conscious denial of reality is often the only way to keep it real.

Reed Birney—a fixture in New York, but known to local audiences for his turn as Vice President Donald Blythe in the recently-concluded series House of Cards—gives us a fascinating glimpse of Dr. Cotton’s professionalism, his tweedy, bespectacled exterior, and calm demeanor, which slowly reveals the agony and guilt Cotton lives with.  From an actor’s perspective, his use of the pause (a much maligned and misunderstood technique) is nothing short of masterful, as Cotton is forced to confront his own personal challenges along with those of his patient.

Reed Birney as Dr. Philip Cotton and Ephraim Birney as Chester Bailey in the East Coast premiere of 'Chester Bailey' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman Photography.
Reed Birney as Dr. Philip Cotton and Ephraim Birney as Chester Bailey in the East Coast premiere of ‘Chester Bailey’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman Photography.

Making a splash at the CATF in the role of Chester Bailey is Reed Birney’s son, Ephraim. Chester’s bubbly enthusiasm and his refusal to acknowledge any of his limitations are as endearing as they are forceful; whether scaling the girders of the set (see below) or holding forth from his hospital bed, the younger Birney stands up to the old man and wins in this epic battle of imagination vs. reality.

Director Ron Lagomarsino has chosen to let Dougherty’s language take center stage, and to give audiences a glimpse of the world as Chester sees it. There is one memorable sequence in which, forced by Cotton to acknowledge his true condition, Chester proudly rebukes the doctor, refusing to give in. I refuse to divulge the details, it is a thing of beauty to be seen live.

Luciana Stecconi has created an appropriately industrial setting, with the stage bordered and topped by girders and rivets galore—evocations of Chester’s work, but also of Penn Station, which has distinct meanings for both characters. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes capture the mid-century professional look, as well as the soft cotton pajamas of the incarcerated. John Ambrosone’s lights, meanwhile, delineate the transitions between present and past, between doctor’s office and Chester’s room, with Brendan Aanes’ discreet, brief music heightening the show’s emotional portent.

When – not if, but when – you come to Shepherdstown for this year’s CATF, you’ll have lots to choose from. But whatever you do, you mustn’t miss Studio 112’s offerings, and an evening spent with Chester Bailey is one well spent.

Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Chester Bailey runs as a part of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, July 5-28 in Studio 112 at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For tickets email the box office at info@catf.org, call 800-999-2283 (CATF), extension 1; or go online.

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